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I have a confession to make: I’ve never been much of a reader of “classic” literature. I read the stuff I had to in high school and college – and liked some of it – but never developed a passion for stuff like Jane Eyre or Moby Dick or the Canterbury Tales.

Why confess all this to you? Because there is one classic story that I have read, and it is just about the perfect metaphor for what it means to fight our way out of serious anxiety. It is called Dante’s Inferno, and it is about a man’s journey, literally, through Hell, and what he learned along the way.

Today’s post is a review of what he learned, why it’s relevant in our fight to get clear of anxiety, and what we need to ‘gird our loins” for in this work. Loins girded? Let’s go –

The Journey starts in Hell

Let me say first that this isn’t an easy blog post to write, and it probably won’t be an easy blog post to read. What I want to do (and have often tried to do in this blog) is encourage people as much as possible. Anxiety is hard enough most of the time.

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But I’ve come to re-realize in the last few months that there is an essential quality to this work that way, way too many of us don’t grasp sufficiently – it is very challenging work. Not so challenging that we can’t do it – but it is not easy, it is not comfortable, and it will most definitely take us way out of our Comfort Zones.

Let’s start with a basic truth about dealing with chronic anxiety. By the time we realize we are in the grip of anxious thinking and reacting we have already been fighting anxiety for years and years. Metaphorically, when we wake up to the battle, we’re already in hell – a hell of anxious thinking and dealing with Flight or Fight.

That can look like agoraphobia, or almost agoraphobia. That can look like repeated panic attacks that seem to come from nowhere and that plague our days. That can look like chronic, unrelieved depression. Or it can look like all those things at once.

Of course we didn’t just realize one day we were deep in the hold of anxiety. We’ve known at some level for a long time. But when it becomes something we can’t avoid looking at any more we are, in a sense, in Hell.

Hey, I don’t like saying it, and I don’t mean to imply that we can’t get OUT of Hell. But it doesn’t help to pretend that something isn’t what it is. Chronic anxiety sucks. It is life-draining, soul-smashing, terrifying and an utter burden. It FEELS like Hell.

We want to go up – but we have to go down first

Dante, at the start of the book called Inferno, finds himself in Hell. He has a guide (a guy named Virgil), and Virgil tells him that he’s going to have to walk through Hell to get out. Dante isn’t very excited about this news, but if he wants out it is what he has to do, so off they go –

Dante 4

Down. In Dante’s Hell everything heads down, with the nicest parts of Hell (if such a thing can be said) at the top, and conditions worsening as you go further down. Here’s the catch: the exit is at the bottom.

That’s a perfect description of the work to get free of anxiety. We want to go up – of course we do. We just want anxiety to STOP! Holy crap, who wouldn’t? But we can’t. In the Inferno there are monsters blocking the way – scary things that prevent us from moving to freedom. With anxiety there are scary monsters too – scary monsters of thinking that force us to try NEW thinking.

Permit me to remind you that anxiety is a thinking problem, a thinking disorder, and we won’t “just” get over it. We have to (as I’ve said over and over in this blog) change our thinking – hard work and slow all by itself.

But it’s also SCARY thinking – thinking we’ve been avoiding for years and years, running away from as hard as we could – and that makes it harder still. See where I’m going? We have to, in a sense, move deeper into that thinking, face it down – be willing to be scared, and tired, and mad, and reactive, and dealing with Flight or Fight – for a period of time before it starts to get better.

Kinda like heading down through Hell to get out. Again, at the very least it FEELS like Hell, and we can find ourselves saying things like “why am I putting myself through this hell?” The answer is simple: to get OUT.

The Journey is Hard!

If you’ve ever read The Inferno you know that Dante saw some pretty awful things in his journey down through the Circles of Hell. The souls in Hell were subjected to a series of terrible punishments based on their sins, but we who fight anxiety are not paying for sin – we’re paying for learning to treat problems, issues, LIFE as a crisis.

I can do it

I can do it

It would be wonderful (comparatively speaking) if we only had to change one thought, one what if fear in our heads. But part of the reason the journey through our personal Hell is such a struggle is that we didn’t just learn ONE what if. Nope, we’ve learned to think a number of what if fears, multiple habits of turning problems into crises, and so we’re facing down multiple scary thoughts and regular bouts of Flight or Fight reacting to that thinking.

This gets very tiring, very tedious, and often very scary. Yes, we’re reacting to thoughts, not real danger. But it feels like real danger.

This might be the hardest part of the journey for us as we address and rethink our thinking, because for a while it is very punishing – we are still reacting to those thoughts as crisis thoughts, Flight or Fight is still beating at our door, and we are having to endure those reactions until we begin to clearly establish that new thinking approach, the treating of problems AS problems.

I often call this work “cleaning out the basement.” (Which, for some of us, is very much like having to go through Hell.) Think of a big, dark, cluttered basement. It’s hard to see in (the light has burned out), you keep banging your shins into hard edges, the place is full of dust and spiderwebs and you’re on edge because you don’t really know what’s down there!

What are we cleaning out? We’re cleaning out old assumptions about who we should be, what we should be able to do, what we must NEVER do, how we should ALWAYS act. We are assessing and rethinking rules, beliefs and personal standards (which are usually insanely, impossibly high and self-punishing.)

What can make this particularly “hellish” is how we keep flinching back, keep wanting to run every time that our fears fire up Flight or Fight. This is why I drive SO diligently the practice of seeing Flight or Fight for what it is –an automatic alarm system trying to “get us to safety” when there in fact is no danger.

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The problem is that Flight or Fight becomes our own personal demon (or demons), constantly trying to scare us, poke at us, freak us out, make us RUN. Again, it feels like hell –

This is a Hard Journey – but it is a Journey anyone can take

This work won’t get done overnight. It will take weeks and weeks, months of work to rework our thinking into healthy tracks. It will very much feel like moving down through Hell, many days. But at the end of the day the only way out is through.

And perhaps more importantly it is a journey that anyone can finish. There really is a door in the bottom of hell, both in Dante’s fictional story and in our very real fight, and it leads out into a life beyond incessant anxiety and worry.

And there is more than just an ending to chronic anxiety. There is a powerful new set of thinking skills that we’ll possess, and we’ll never look at anxiety the same way again. There is a huge new sense of freedom, a freedom to tackle life in comfort and confidence. There are new adventures, whole new people to meet, new ways to live our life.

All of that is waiting outside this hell we’ve come to live in. All that’s left for us to do is start the journey down – and out. It feels like hell, it sure seems like hell sometimes, but it’s really just us facing down our fears.

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(I’ve had some friends and clients feeling the stress of doing this work, and I wanted today to help cheer them on. I originally put this post up at the start of the year, and thought it be might useful to have a mid-year reminder…)

Too many of us anxiety fighters learned a crazy lesson over the years of living in fear: we learned that we were fragile. We’re wrong, but we don’t know we’re wrong. This post is a follow-up to my post HERE on not flinching back from this anxiety work – as well as a discussion of how much agency/strength we have in our lives. HOWEVER it seems or feels to us for the moment…

You might be thinking at the moment hey Erik, I AM fragile. I feel overwhelmed by my life, my stress, my fears and my inadequacies. You might also be saying that there is a lot of evidence that you ARE fragile, and that seems hard to refute from where you’re sitting.

I understand that thinking, that feeling. I thought and felt the same way for decades – really, I thought and felt that way before I even KNEW I did. But I was wrong – and so are you.

We’re not made of glass. We won’t shatter in the face of troubles. We just don’t get it yet. So let’s talk about just how not fragile – and about how TOUGH we actually are. Because it’s time you knew that you’re a fighter, and that you’re tougher than you know.

How did we start thinking this way?

Fragile 1

As much as I talk about the origins of anxiety in this blog I don’t think I have written enough about the early days of our acquiring the foundations of our anxious thinking. Because, you see, we don’t show up anxious. We learn to think anxiously, and that’s where we get in trouble.

There are some folks running around in the world that have a conviction that at least some of us are born anxious. There’s nothing in the research that’s been done to date that says there is any convincing evidence of this, but it can be a tempting theory. One of the reasons it’s tempting is that we don’t remember, most of us, some clear demarcation in our lives when anxiety began.

In fact (speaking both from my own personal experience and my experience working with chronic anxiety fighters) it seems to sneak up on us, to just “come out of nowhere.” It might seem to come in the form of a sudden traumatic moment where we have our first panic attack. It might be simply that we become aware one day of just how frightened and nervous and anxious we feel one overwhelming afternoon.

But most of us don’t really parse out how this got started. It isn’t complex. It started with us learning to see the world through anxious eyes – more specifically, through the lens of anxious thinking. We picked up, to a significant extent, in the way we learned to think from the people around us – family, friends, even school and church can contribute.

There is much more to say on this subject, but the point here is that we understood SO LITTLE of what was going on. This lack of good information/understanding left us floundering when chronic anxiety made its first obvious appearance in our lives.

When that ugly/scary first anxiety experience happened we had Flight or Fight fire up. And man, it scared us. It FELT like something terrible was happening – something too terrible for us to manage. We succumbed to the warnings of Flight or Fight – we ran away. And, because we ran away, Flight or Fight calmed down to some extent.

Fragile 3

That set us up two ways: 1) running away is a good idea, and 2) we couldn’t handle what scared us. In other words We learned early that we were NOT equal to our lives, in some or in many areas – i.e., we learned to think that we couldn’t manage our own lives, that we weren’t smart enough, strong enough, capable enough, you name it.

UGH. Not so useful. But all we knew was we were “safe” from those terrible feelings of panic and anxiety, and so we counted our blessings and tried to forget it.

What we didn’t understand then was we were NOT anxious “out of the blue” We were anxious because we had spent years and years looking at things in our lives as crises – i.e., things that would be too awful to endure if they turned out the way our fears had us thinking about them.

We were trying desperately to avoid offending other people. Or making anyone mad at us. Or failing in our role as wife, mother, daughter, son, husband, dad, friend, co-worker, etc. Or failing in our career. Or not being holy enough. Or in some way treating multiple issues that were only WERE issues as if they were life-and-death crises.

We were trying to follow a LOT of rules, shoulds, must bes, etc. – and it proved overwhelming to us – and so we ran away, not understanding the real reasons we were anxious, and now terrified of this panic and fierce anxiety thing.

And, in running away, we confirmed with ourselves that we were not able to endure all we were supposed to endure/manage/deal with in our lives.

And the Party was just beginning…

emotions 3

This pattern of thinking and feeling anxiously, then running away and in our running finding some relief from that anxious thinking and feeling, got reinforced every time we ran. We developed the habit of running away – in our minds and in our lives. We could feel our lives getting smaller – but we really didn’t see an alternative.

Not so great for self-confidence and the sense that we can take care of ourselves, yes? We felt unsure of ourselves, fragile, weak and other nice words we might have used to describe how we felt then (and maybe now.)

Worse, we looked at other people and THEY seemed to be managing their lives – what the hell was wrong with us? (Appearances are deceiving, we’re not seeing into their lives or thinking, etc., but again, we didn’t or don’t see that when we’re busy beating ourselves up because we feel so weak/fragile/unable to cope.)

And of course we’ve KEPT backing up, kept running away from what is making us so freakin’ scared.

We may have turned to medication, which can in some cases be a real help/relief to how we FEEL, and even help give our thinking some room to maneuver. But it also, at some level, gave way too many of us further proof that we weren’t strong or capable enough to manage life on our own ability. It made us feel dependent and even more fragile.

(Worse, unless those meds were accompanied by the work necessary to challenge and change those old habits of anxious thinking, nothing really changed about our anxiety. It was still there, still in the background, and that, too, was a gnawing concern for us.)

As the days and months and years rolled on our worlds got smaller, our fears didn’t really go anyplace and we wound up with the conviction that we were NOT capable of dealing with life.

We were wrong

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The therapy people talk about how we create stories about our experience and lives – a narrative of what is our truth, what is real for us. The bad news is that story, that narrative doesn’t necessarily reflect what IS really going on or what we have experienced.

But the good news is that we are free to examine and even change that narrative to something that is closer to the truth. Dang good thing too, because we are much, much more capable than we allow ourselves to think, and we have been much tougher than we have ever believed.

Look at what you HAVE done for a minute. If you’re a chronic anxiety fighter than you have

put up with chronic anxiety and fear for years or decades,

managed to still get along, by hook or crook, even as we told ourselves we couldn’t go on,

have often kept on dealing with anxiety AND feeding and raising kids, holding down a job,

taken care of elderly parents or disabled kids, dealing with other people’s problems, etc.,

have had to endure a terrible amount of negative feedback – intentional or unintentional – from the people in our lives that don’t understand chronic anxiety.

Holy crap. That’s a lot of stuff to manage for people who are supposedly fragile and weak and unable to deal with life. We are much stronger, much tougher than we see, because our stories of failure, weakness, inability cloud our ability to see what we’ve really been able to do. Weak people, fragile people couldn’t do all that I’ve listed here.

We need to understand that we are much stronger, much more able than we have been understanding about ourselves, and we need to learn to exploit that strength, use it to can help us climb out of anxious thinking and build new habits of thought.

Strong 2

Pardon my French, but we have been telling ourselves a bullshit story, and it’s time we got honest about what we can do in this fight to beat anxiety.

Time for a New and More Honest story

So much of this comes down to FEELING. We don’t FEEL like we’re strong enough. We don’t FEEL like we can take care of ourselves. We don’t FEEL like we’ll ever get free of anxiety.

That makes sense. Flight or Fight is a strong mechanism, designed to get us moving in the face of real, actual danger. (How often do I say THAT in this blog?) But we are much more than Flight or Fight. And we are much more than our feelings.

Because our feelings are only a weathervane for our thoughts. If the wind picks up we don’t attempt to manage the wind by gluing the weathervane in one direction, do we? No. The weathervane just indicates what the wind is doing. Our feelings just indicate what our thoughts are doing.

Which means we need to review and rewrite this story of weakness and fragility. Here are some starting points:
We have endured anxious for years and years. If we have the strength to do that we have the strength to turn and face it down, deal with it and change our thinking.

We have endured the symptoms of anxious thinking – Flight or Fight’s sensations and feelings – for years and years. We have the capacity to face down those sensations and feelings and stop letting them scare us so much.

We have raised kids, managed houses and marriages, dealt with other people’s problems, suffered loss and grief and still pressed on, however much we told ourselves that we couldn’t manage all of that. If we can do that stuff we have the ability, energy and endurance to face down anxiety.

Strong 3

We REALLY want to live a healthy, happy life. That by itself is a great focus to drive towards, even when our fears insist that there is no way, we can never have that, etc. This redirecting of our thinking to what we DO want is exactly the kind of practice we need to begin to develop the ability to redirect our thinking and take control of our thinking.

One last thing: as I’ve said elsewhere in this blog anxiety fighters are STUBBORN. Holy crap we are stubborn. We have tenacity and stubbornness in abundance. (You know it’s true.) Let’s come out of the closet as stubborn people and use that stubbornness to go get what we want – a different story about our thinking, our fears and our lives.

Not Sure what to Do Next?

1) Consider writing out both your current story, all that fear and junk in your head, and writing out the actual things you’ve had to move through, manage and deal with. Get help from family and friends if you find yourself unsure about the second story details – you’ll be surprised at what you hear. 🙂

2) Read “Compassion and Self-Hate” by T.I. Rubin (cheap on Amazon.) Read JUST the Compassion part (the second half of the book) FIRST – and begin to see how you are both telling yourself a faulty story AND see some examples of what a more healthy, more realistic story would look like.

3) Hit me here at the blog. I’ll be happy to help you start clarifying the real story of your ability and strength.

We are much, much stronger and more capable than we are being honest about with ourselves. Time to claim our real strength and ability…

Strong 4

You know who’s brilliant at looking backwards in time? Anxiety fighters. We are remarkable in our ability to get lost in grief, regret and pointless review of earlier days, earlier self-perceived failings and mistakes and not “getting it right.”

We who battle anxiety by definition are lost in the future too much of the time, no doubt. That’s the heart and soul of anxiety. But we can get lost in the future by getting consumed by the past and what did or didn’t happen. (What? How does that work? Stay with me – I’ll explain myself in a bit.)

To wage this battle against anxiety effectively we have to do something that always makes me laugh (and shake my head, remembering my own long history of doing this regret thing) when I hear my friend Sam say the following truth: “We have to give up hope for a better past.”

That’s the mission of today’s blog post: getting our heads out of the past is essential to getting free of anxiety. We can’t fight anxiety in the future OR the past (although, in truth, it is always and only EVER about the future.) We can only fight it here in the present.

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Looking over our Shoulder all the Time gives you a Stiff Neck…

One of the gifts of being human is that we remember stuff. We remember our names, where we live, what we did 4 weeks ago that was fun, why we shouldn’t touch a hot stove, cool stuff like that. It is sometimes great that we remember things.

Remembering things is essential to learning. There have been people who have taken brain injuries of one kind or another who literally cannot remember anything long enough to retain it – and as a result they cannot learn. Remembering is good because it can lead to learning. (Note that I said CAN – other things come into play, which we’ll get to in a minute – but it doesn’t have to drive learning.)

On the other hand one of the big challenges of being human is that we remember stuff – stuff we would rather not remember. We remember mistakes, failings, angry conversations, hurts, abuses, dangerous situations, scary situations. If we are not careful we can get lost in remembering, over and over.

We can get stuck in the past. This can in turn feed issues like lingering regret, on-going grief, sustained anger, the fear of loss, and yes, anxiety. We can get stuck in a feedback loop of, at least in part, our own creating. We review the past, we pore over our mistakes and stumbles, we do mea culpa (or rage against the injustice, or whatever we’re thinking about the past), and that in turn makes us feel all the feelings I just listed – and we start the merry-go-round up again.

All of this getting stuck in the past can be summarized by saying we are scared of what that past means for our future. We are scared of what it meant then, no doubt – but more importantly we’re scared of what it means for the future. Yeah – the future.

Letting go 1

All anxiety is about avoiding danger – real, or imagined. If we think that something in our past means something for our future, and that thing is scary, then we’re going to start treating it as a crisis.

Examples of how we can let the Past Scare us about the Future

Let’s say we went through, in the past, a really crappy relationship. We fell for the wrong person, or that person went off the rails, or whatever the problem was the relationship ended badly. We were pretty hurt, pretty damaged by the whole experience.

More importantly, it scared us. We were left doubting our ability to DO relationship in healthy ways. We began to speculate, using those two, terrible words: what if. What if I’m unable to have a healthy relationship? What if it is ME that makes it so hard? What if I just can’t find someone who I can make a life with EVER?

It feels like we’re stuck in the past. And we are. But we’re not really worrying about the past. We’re worrying about the future. And in our worry we’re treating that hypothetical, always-alone, never-find-love-again as a crisis – and that of course is firing up Flight or Fight, which feeds the anxiety and creates a wonderful feedback loop…

And presto, we’re anxious.

Or let’s say we suffered some terrible trauma in our earlier days. Maybe it was a bad car accident. Maybe somebody attacked us physically. Maybe we were physically abused. Maybe we got sick, or had a scary hospital experience. (Ugh. All terrible things to have to endure.) No question that anybody would have to do some recovering and healing from such experiences.

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It feels like we’re pinned by those bad experiences. We keep reliving them, or running away from them, or both. But there’s a problem with that thinking: the event is already behind us. Regardless of the trauma experienced, regardless of what happened, it is DONE.

I am not, in a thousand years, trying to say that we should “just get over it” or pretend somehow that it didn’t happen. Far from it. I’m saying that in the normal course of mental, physical and emotional healing we would normally grieve, process and then move on.

But when we start making it a crisis that we hang onto we are really worrying about the future. And that’s where we get in trouble. Having a bad experience in the PAST doesn’t mean that we’re forever chained to that past!

Were we emotionally and mentally hit (and scarred) by that experience? That’s not a small thing. I’m not saying that we didn’t experience trauma. But it is what we DO with that trauma moving forward that is crucial to breaking anxiety’s hold. Something that is done is DONE. It is only a burden to us if we carry it forward.

And the way we carry it forward is being afraid of it as if it was going to happen again. We don’t have to be conscious of that fear/assumption to have it rule (and ruin) our lives in the present. We can simply flinch away from the terrible memories, feelings, experiences to have them wreak havoc in our current life.

I’m not claiming that this is easy work. Any “what if?” thought can grow to giant proportions if we feed it over time.

So what do we DO about past trauma that is making a mess of our present?

My first recommendation is to find a good therapist. I’m not talking about an MD here. I’m talking about someone who is trained to deal with trauma and even PTSD. Yes, past trauma, even for people that have never been to war or caught in a firefight can be labeled PTSD.

It is in fact my argument that PTSD is just a very extreme form of what if thinking linked to a past traumatic event that we’re projecting into our future. Therapy, effective therapy, is often vital to that work. Get somebody who will both listen to you and help you see that the past is in fact the past, whatever happened – and that your mission moving forward is to get into the present, working to build the kind of life you want.

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My second recommendation is to get clean on precisely what you are what if thinking about. Depending on the intensity of the issue (a bad accident or hospital experience, for example, or a physical assault) it might be better to identify those what if assumptions WITH a therapist.

It is also however work that may be possible to do with journaling, a coach or a close friend/family member that we can drop our shields with and do some working through about. All anxiety comes down to what if thinking (anxiety that isn’t induced by, say, 4 café grandes from Starbucks.) Certainly doing both can only advance our cause.

My third recommendation (and related to number two) is to get clear what our expectations were and are about our life – what SHOULD have happened, what we SHOULD have experienced, what we SHOULD be able to do, etc. We can get stuck in what if thinking in part when we are holding onto old expectations, old rules, old assumptions about how life should or shouldn’t work…

This is emotional and difficult work. It will, for a while, ramp up Flight or Fight in our bodies and feelings. It will ruffle our feathers and make us scratchy as hell. We won’t do it all at once. We will flinch back some more and get mad and sad and frustrated.

But letting go of the past is one of the most healthy things we can do for ourselves, and especially a past that we are carrying with us into our present. The past is done, however much we regret it, however much we were hurt in it.

Today is today. And the future, as long as we’re here, stretches before us. Isn’t it time to stop paying rent on the past?

Letting go 5

In my last post I started a conversation about a question that is usually top of mind for those of us who are in the fight to break anxiety’s hold in our lives – how long will it take me to get free of this crap? In that post I listed out two crucial pieces – basic thinking skills needed and getting good information about how anxiety works, and what works in overcoming anxiety.

With this post I’ll discuss two more pieces, then finally answer the question. (No, I’m not trying to tease you – some answers are longer than others…)

Regular Practice

Ugh. Practice. I’m reminded of my days as a piano student (back when I thought piano was a grand waste of time – sigh.) I HATED practice. I didn’t see the point, I got bored, it was hard… you know the story.

Except as I got older I realized that to get some things I wanted I HAD to get comfortable with the notion of practice. Maybe most kids develop a crappy understanding of practice, but, I begin to believe (here in middle age) that it isn’t so much about practice as a thing. I think it is more about the fear of failure.

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Practice needs to be understood as inexperience working towards experience, and from experience to better and better performance. As I mentioned at the start of this blog post we’re really not clear on the truth that some things we need take TIME – time and consistent effort.

Even the word “consistent” is too fraught with the feeling of failure to use with some people. Consistent is perfect practice (what the heck would that mean anyway?) as in doing the exact same amount of time, the exact same way, every day. Practice is learning, experimenting, trying this and trying that, as well as giving yourself time to get better, slowly, over time.

Practice is NOT trying it for 3 days, or two weeks, or for 2 minutes a day for 6 months. Practice is NOT moving from triumph to triumph, consistently improving skill in noticeable ways every time we do practice.

So what IS practice? Practice IS leaning into the work in a steady, regular way. Practice is a mix of staying clear on our goal, doing the work, staying clear on WHAT we need to practice and expecting every day to be what it is – more effective, less effective, but all of it building upon itself, making us slowly better over time.

Let’s get more specific. Practice looks something like this:

1) Regular sessions reviewing our what if thinking (on paper, on a laptop, on our phone, someplace where we can keep a real, consistent record of our unpacking work) and in that reviewing getting more and more skillful at seeing our “crises” as problems.

Practice 3

That might be 10-15 minutes, twice a day, three times a day. Maybe before breakfast, after lunch, after dinner. Get a schedule that works for you.

2) Have clear goals and keep working those goals, with those goals centered largely on two things: actual, physical practice confronting your old crisis thinking and replacing it with a problem orientation in the real world – not just on paper, as important as that is – and actively engaging your life.

If your goal is to get to the corner alone then do that, while you’re staying clear on how getting to the corner isn’t a crisis, whatever your what if fears are shouting at you. It’s reminding yourself that the corner is, for the moment, a problem, and you have ways to manage that problem.

You might do this work 3 or 4 or 5 times in a day. I would really encourage you to come back home and record what happened, how your thinking worked this time, what you can do better, where you’re still holding yourself up. Keep a record!

3) Are you doing good self-care? How’s that sleep thing for you? What are you putting in your face in the way of food? Where are those boundaries you keep wanting to draw?

4) Practicing patience – with yourself more than anyone else. Seeing the work as being practice across time, rather than one heroic effort.

So – the speed of our results in breaking anxiety’s hold will depend on the effort we make to practice.

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Expecting a Learning Curve – including the Bumps that come with any Learning Curve

OK. We’ve tackled good thinking skills, good information and practice. ALL of that will lead, naturally, to a learning curve. Although, maybe, I should be called a learning hiking path. 🙂 Over difficult and easy terrain both! Sometimes the path seems unclear or overgrown. Sometimes we hear scary noises in the bushes. And sometimes we get sunburned, and really tired, and grumpy, and we just want a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

Yeah, I like hiking trail better than curve. Learning is rarely straight-forward. We have plateaus, slow places, even back-tracking in a learning curve – a lot like hiking. (For my post on plateaus and stalls in our work to overcome anxiety go HERE.)

So what? That’s part of learning. It doesn’t signal failure and if anything it says that we ARE learning.

And – you guessed it – the speed of our getting clear of crappy, anxious thinking will depend in part on our patience and fortitude in the face of the learning curve/hiking trail.

My partner Bob likes to hike. He hikes pretty much every weekend. He likes to hike at a particular park about an hour from our house, up among the redwood trees. The park he hikes in has a couple of easy trails – maybe half a mile or a mile total, mostly flat, very easy to follow. The rest of the park has a variety of trails, some of them miles in length and going over some impressive terrain.

Guess what he notices? Most people who visit this beautiful park stay on the easiest trail, do the shortest walk, and miss 8/10’s of what is available in this location – including the most beautiful views and the most glorious stands of redwood trees. Those people really never see the park – they mostly see the parking lot. 🙂 The good stuff takes a little work.

We can’t get free of anxiety if we won’t make the hike. Learning Curves are rarely nice, linear, steadily-improving experiences. In the case of rewriting our anxious thinking it will involve experiences like this:

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We face down a fearful thought and it overwhelms us the first two, five, ten, twenty times we try.

We have a burst of Flight or Fight reactions “come out of nowhere” (not the case, it’s always a thought, but it feels like it’s out of nowhere)

We have a day when we seem to forget everything we’ve been learning – we’re tired, we’re distracted, we just feel overwhelmed

We get angry and frustrated! We go to a corner and pout, or break some dishes, or just say screw it, I’ll never get this, I suck, etc.

All of that is natural and normal. This is part of being in a learning curve. Don’t forget how eager anxiety thinking is to get you to GIVE UP – after all, why is this so damn hard anyway? – and besides, it’s hopeless for you no matter what you do. 🙂 Recognize any of that crap?

Learning a new skill takes TIME. Learning a small handful of skills (which is what you’re doing) will take longer still. It’s OK. It’s better than OK. These are skills that will be with you the rest of your life.

So how long WILL IT TAKE?

I’m sorry (but only a little) to report that there is no clean, simple answer to this, at least chronologically. That’s true for any attempt to acquire new skills. I’ve seen people see substantial relief in just a couple of months. I’ve seen people take years. I’ve seen people start this work, stop, start again, stop – but they eventually get there.

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And, hardest of all, I’ve seen people never really wade in, never really start this work. I’m not putting anyone down. I fought this process tooth and claw. But we can’t get anyplace if we don’t get started, despite how we feel, despite how much we wish it was easier, less scary, etc.

Permit me to argue that it will take the time it takes. A better question to ask ourselves is what’s getting in my way in this work? Where can I lean in, face down the next obstacle, get better at being uncomfortable so I can get where I want to go?

Another good question to ask is how easily do I give up? Anxiety is SO GOOD at teaching us to just surrender, just stop trying, when things get scary and difficult. As I mentioned in my last post we live in a time when we expect things to happen FAST – as in RIGHT NOW – not realizing that some things, some processes, some changes take time.

Finally, it will take less time than it’s taking if we’re avoiding if we just get down to it. 🙂

There are few things we’d like to get rid of faster than the habit of anxious thinking. It only makes sense. We are sick of the torment, the flinching back from our lives and the utter drain from our souls in the daily battle with anxiety.

In addition we live in an age when we have come to expect things to move along pretty quickly. We’re not accustomed to having to wait for much these days. Microwaves, online shopping, quick weight-loss programs and 1 billion channels of television make it easy to expect to get what we want NOW.

There is a class of desires, however, that can only come with solid basic thinking skills, good information, regular practice, a learning curve and the bumps that come during that learning curve – in other words, when we are building new skills. Want to, for example, learn to play the banjo? (I think you’re a lunatic if you do, but hey, some people really LIKE a good banjo.)

You’re going to have to practice. And you can’t really practice until you have some basic idea what the hell you’re doing in the first place. That practicing is going to take time. You’re going to learn some things well, and other things not so well – you’ll learn them wrong, make mistakes, and have to go back and learn them differently.

And no, you won’t be able to play “Smokey Mountain Breakdown” in 10 days. Or even 20. It’s going to take some time to master the ancient art of banjo playing. Now this is where the metaphor of learning a musical instrument stops being comparable to overcoming anxiety, because it doesn’t have to take near as much time to break the hold of anxiety as it does to learn to play the banjo. More about that later in this post.

Let’s apply this thinking to the work of breaking free of chronic anxiety –

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Solid, basic Thinking Skills

Thinking is a skill. I know, that sounds crazy. Can’t everybody just think, the way they just breathe? No. Thanks for asking. Thinking is actually a fairly complex set of skills. Most of us learn some (but not all) of those skills in two ways: watching/modeling other people and formal training.

This just in: most of us don’t get the full complement of useful thinking skills from either of these sources. I’m not, by the way, trashing your esteemed parents or your K-12 teachers. I am, however, accusing ALL of us of missing vital components in good, adept thinking. What are those skills?

1) Questioning our assumptions/being careful of assuming we know the final word.
2) Running good experiments – i.e., trying things out and giving them the time and attention they need to really tell us if we’re finding results or not.
3) Noticing and being aware of our bias – i.e., being wary of gathering information /vetting information with the intent of only already proving our current thinking, rather than letting what we’re learning tell us what it is trying to tell us.

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It can be useful to ask yourself which skills are you good at, and which ones do you need to strengthen?

These skills are doubly important for anxiety fighters who want OFF the merry-go-round of anxious thinking. Anxiety makes it so easy to just throw up our hands, assume that we’re screwed. It takes us extra effort to keep working to keep our thinking as clear as we can in the face of that tendency.

There’s another issue anxiety brings on: when we’re in Flight or Fight it’s harder (not impossible, but harder) to keep our thinking clear. That, by itself, is a small skill – and one that only comes with practice and time.

So – the speed that you’ll finish this work will depend in part on how effectively you’re doing your thinking. This is work ANYONE can do – but it has to be done. We can’t take short-cuts and we can’t skimp on doing at least some careful thinking.

Good Information

For the love of all that’s holy there is a LOT of bad information and thinking about the nature of anxiety, as well as what we can do about it, floating around out there. Take this pill. Do this breathing technique. Assume that you’re screwed – you’re just an “anxious person.” And a lot more besides…

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Lots of anxiety fighters float from theory to theory, teacher to teacher, book to book, technique to technique, flailing for the thing that will give them relief FAST. Sure we do. We’re not bad people for doing that – but we are often not doing much to help our efforts to break anxiety’s hold if we’re doing this.

We need to ask questions in our search for good information, good resources. Is this person someone who has actually dealt with anxiety – lived the dream, as it were? Do they seem to actually understand what it means to wrestle with anxiety over time? Have they seen good results from the tools and techniques and framework they are advocating?

Good information (and vetting/evaluating that information) isn’t as easy as looking at someone’s credentials or title. Yes, doctors and therapists are in theory supposed to be great resources for getting information about anxiety. Sadly there are too many doctors or therapists who don’t even stop to take a full history of our experience, or listen to our specific experiences. They hear the word “anxiety” and they are already reaching for a prescription pad or recommending desensitization exercises.

Part of the problem is they don’t really understand anxiety and how it works – conceptually or personally. Don’t get me wrong – meds and desensitization exercises both have a place in this work! But they can’t by themselves get us free of anxiety. They have to be applied with a strong, solid understanding of how anxiety works and how those tools can best serve that understanding for us.

We can’t just defer to doctors – much as that would be great or easy to do. We can’t just see one or two therapists and then assume that we’re screwed because they couldn’t help us effectively.

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Maybe the best summary of this point is this: are we gathering information, looking at it carefully, looking at who is saying it and asking the questions we need to ask? Or are we assuming that someone claims to have a way to manage and overcome anxiety MUST know what they’re talking about, then getting frustrated by our lack of progress?

(And, btw, I hope you’re doing this exact process with ME and ANYONE who says they have something useful to say about anxiety.)

Not all information is equal! At this point in the blog post I’m hearing some of you say (in my head) “man, this seems like a lot of work. Isn’t this tough enough already without having to do this careful research?” Well, in some respects it is a serious hassle. It would be brilliant if we didn’t have to work this hard.

On the other hand it is what it is. We don’t always get to pick our battles – but, once we’ve identified that we have a battle to fight, it is up to us to get the best information we can, mostly so we can do the best thinking and work we can do to win that battle.

So – our speed at overcoming anxiety will depend in part on the quality of information we’re using to deal with anxiety.

I haven’t finished Answering the Question yet…

In fact I’m only half-way! I’ll finish next post. In the meantime consider how this applies to YOU, dear anxiety fighter, as you ponder how long this work will take for you. Are you seeing the nature of the fight clearly, i.e., thinking about it clearly? Or is your theory of anxiety getting in the way? (See my post HERE about dysfunctional ways to see anxiety, just to double-check.)

And what about the information you’re operating from? Who are you using as your source material for dealing with anxiety? Can you apply what you’re learning? Are there tools you can use effectively?

Anxiety is a thinking issue. (How often do you read THAT here?) If we’re not doing good thinking and using good information we’re just getting in our own way.

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Video

With today’s writing I’ve created 255 blog posts about overcoming anxiety. I’ve put a lot of words on “paper” about how anxiety works and what we can do about it.

I have realized in the last few weeks that, in the middle of all that writing (and lots more writing at a Facebook Group I’ve had the good fortune to participate in over the last 3-1/2 years, and lots of conversations with those Facebook friends and my anxiety coaching clients) it is easy for me to lose sight of the basic nature of this work.

Today I want to review those basics, reset the stage, clarify precisely what overcoming anxiety looks like and how we get there. Here are the basics: What if thinking (problem to crisis thinking, the thing that makes us anxious in the first place), the reactions of Flight or Fight to that what if thinking that come to scare us so badly, unpacking that thinking back into problem thinking, and functional self-care.

Making Crises out of Problems – the heart and soul of Anxiety

I suspect you’ve heard stories about people that are afraid of what seems to you to be silly things – rabbit’s feet, or clowns, or moths, or having the peas touch the carrots. You say to yourself “how could a clown scare anybody?” (Of course it is possible those fears don’t seem silly at all to you – maybe one of those things scares YOU.)

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A better question to ask ourselves is WHY anything scares anyone when it isn’t actually an immediate, physical danger. In a sense we could say that when we are presented with real, immediate, physical danger we’re not being scared at all. We are simply reacting to that danger. If I’m being attacked by an angry polar bear I’m not being simply scared – I’m dealing with a life-or-death issue RIGHT NOW.

But if I’m afraid of a rabbit’s foot or a clown then I’m being scared – without actually being in danger of being hurt in this present moment. This is anxiety, pure and simple.

How does it work? That’s simple too. To have something make us anxious we have to anticipate a bad, dangerous thing happening to us, sometime in the future. That’s it. That’s all we have to do. Some anxiety thinkers call this what if thinking, and it’s a perfectly descriptive phrase in my opinion.

Let’s say this a different way: to be anxious we have to have a thought, or multiple thoughts, about something that isn’t actually dangerous in the here and now, but which we’re anticipating BEING dangerous in the future. That’s what if thinking.

There are a couple of things that make this SEEM more complicated. One is the truth that we don’t have to be conscious of what if thoughts to have them scare us. Often we are completely unaware of the anxious thought that is rocking our worlds (or, more likely anxious thoughts, plural.)

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That doesn’t mean we can’t BECOME aware of those thoughts, with some effort and practice – but we sure as heck don’t have consciously think a scary thought for that thought to freak us out. Lots of our thinking is habitual thinking. And habitual thinking is rarely conscious thinking.

Another issue that makes this seem more complicated than it is concerns the safety mechanism that we humans have to deal with REAL danger – the Flight or Fight Response. When it goes to Red Alert it makes things FEEL like we’re in real danger –

How did we get here? Why do we do this? We learned to do this. This is a much longer conversation (you can see more HERE if you like) but for the purposes of this conversation anxiety starts and grows here – in the learned, habitual pattern of treating one more issues as a crisis.

Flight or Fight – the second part of the Equation of Anxiety

When we have an anxious thought – when we anticipate danger in the future, do this what if thinking thing – then we activate Flight or Fight. Everyone knows Flight or Fight – that rush of adrenaline, the burst of nervous energy, the natural mechanism that evolved to help us get to safety, one way or another, in the face of real, physical danger.

A host of things happen to us physically and emotionally when Flight or Fight goes to work, but the crucial thing to understand what it is attempting to do: get us ready to RUN – RIGHT NOW. Running is always better than fighting in the natural world, because running, if successful, gets us to safety AND avoids the risk of injury that might impede survival later. We only fight if we are cornered.

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That host of things includes a dry mouth, sweating, dizziness, various heart reactions like skipping and racing, shallow breathing, tingling and numbness, nausea, flushed skin, terror, rage, embarrassment, despair, hopelessness and depression. This is a longer conversation (see my post HERE on this topic) but the bottom line is that most of these sensations and feelings are just Flight or Fight gearing us up to run (or fight if we must) – and the rest are the result of anxiety being sustained for long periods of time without relief – and us becoming convinced that nothing can change for us.

We very easily get caught in a loop that has us believing that there MUST be something terribly wrong with us – after all, why would our bodies react and feel this way if there wasn’t? The answer is that we’re shouting OH MY GOSH I’M IN DANGER – and our body, obligingly, is standing to alert again and again, trying to help us get to safety.

The only problem is that we’re not in real, immediate danger. There’s nothing to run from. Which means Flight or Fight gets us all dressed up without nowhere to go. We’re coursing with energy, seething with adrenaline – but there’s nothing really to do with it.

There’s one more aggravating factor with Flight or Fight reacting to our anxious, fearful thinking. We start doing what if thinking about Flight or Fight! We start asking questions like what if this never stops, what if this means I’m crazy, what if I have a brain tumor… and so in a sense we set up a second level of what if fearful thinking, based on our Flight or Fight reactions, which originally began in response to our earlier what if thinking about stuff in the future. Ugh!

What if thinking activating Flight or Fight – this is anxiety. So what do we DO about it?

Unpacking – Cleaning up our Thinking so we stop Scaring ourselves

Anxiety is based on us taking an issue, problem or situation and blowing up that issue or problem into crisis in our thinking. To get free of chronic anxiety we have to convert that crisis in our thinking back into what it really is – an issue, problem or situation.

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Please don’t think that I don’t understand that it FEELS like a hell of a lot more serious than “just” a problem or issue when we’re in the grip of anxiety. I get it, down in my bones. I spent the majority of two decades running hard from my own anxiety. I was in the grip of terror both over what I was afraid might happen to me (my original what if thinking) and I was scared to death about what Flight or Fight might mean for me (in my case, I was going to go crazy.)

How do we escape this merry-go-round of thinking and reacting? We have to clean up our thinking. We have to stop running, turn around and look our what if thinking in the eye.

We have to do that because we’re treating problems or issues as crises – which means we’re both scaring ourselves silly AND not dealing effectively with the issue or problem. I’m not saying it might not be a BIG problem. I’m saying that if you’re not immediately at risk for death or serious injury then it is not a crisis – and will be MUCH better managed if you will start treating it as a problem. (Not to mention that you won’t be scaring yourself silly over it.)

(See my post HERE on what it means to treat a problem as a problem.)

This is intense, often challenging work. This takes energy, time, patience and a willingness to be, sometimes, damn uncomfortable. Of course that’s the case. We’ve learned to run from our fears – now we’re facing them and seeing them for WHAT THEY ACTUALLY ARE.

That requires the fourth component of mastering anxiety – good self-care.

Self-Care

I have lots to say HERE about the basics of good self-care, but it all comes down to providing yourself with the energy and reserves to do this work as effectively as possible. It isn’t complicated – but it is essential.

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It looks like this:

Some sort of regular physical movement (yes, the dreaded exercise)
Eating decently (not perfectly, but decently)
Getting the best sleep you can
Making your needs at LEAST as important as the people around you – i.e., learning to draw healthy boundaries

This is more challenging than it might first appear for most anxiety fighters. Anxiety is such an energy suck over time. It tempts us to inactivity and motionless – “freezing” in place. It often leads to various forms of self-medication – including eating junk and overeating. It can wreak havoc on sleep – after all, we’re very busy trying to solve problems as if they were life-and-death crises – how the hell are we supposed to sleep?

And perhaps most insidious of all is what 99% of anxiety fighters learned to do – put everyone else’s needs ahead of our own. We don’t know how to draw healthy boundaries in our life. We don’t know how to ask for (and, in some cases, insist on) what we need, even if someone else might be annoyed or a little put out by us getting what we need.

This is by itself a set of skills and we won’t get there overnight. But even baby steps in this direction can make a significant difference in our ability to take on and unpack our fearful what if thinking. Walking every day can be a game changer. Cutting out the extra dessert we think we need to stay rational can have an immediate impact on how we feel (and sleep.) Slowing down at night, setting a regular bedtime, reading or practicing breathing exercises before bedtime, these things can begin to improve the quality of our sleeptime.

Think of this as the most basic self-support we c an do to have the energy and focus we need to take on and break the hold of anxiety.

Simple isn’t the same thing as Easy – but this is work any of us can do

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This is, in a nutshell, how we get anxious, and what we can do about anxiety. We can (and usually do) make it more complicated, unfortunately. 🙂 We fight to avoid the sensations and emotions that Flight or Fight generate – they’ve scared us for so long we have a hard time letting them come and practicing seeing them for what they are.

We fall back into the habit of treating this or that problem as a great hairy crisis. Sure we do – we’ve been doing it a long time. We continue to take crappy care of ourselves – including not treating ourselves with respect when it comes to our limits and boundaries. Sure we do. It’s scary to draw boundaries when you’re fighting chronic anxiety.

But the work is the work. The way out is the way out. It is work any of us can do. It isn’t like falling off a log easy – but it is completely within our reach.

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It would be nice to believe that we’ve all arrived at the same clear, simple, rational understanding of anxiety – why it happens, why it does what it does to us, and what we can do about it. But the truth is that for some people (lots and lots of people) the jury is still out. And that jury being out leaves way too many of us flailing in the dark when it comes to what we can and should do about anxiety.

I work with some wonderful people via Facebook on the subject of anxiety. Through them I have had access to a large (and I mean BIG) group of people who are all battling anxiety. As in hundreds of people. It’s great, even brilliant that we have the capacity these days to make contact with other anxiety fighters and find support – I sure as hell didn’t have any of that “back in the day.”

But what isn’t brilliant is the troubling amount of misinformation that is floating around out there, and perhaps especially in the world of the internet. Today’s post is about identifying and debunking some of the worst of that misinformation.

Why do this? Because anxiety is particularly good at making us give up, just stop trying, if we think that we are dealing with something that we can’t change. The inaccurate beliefs/assumptions I’m tackling today are especially insidious when it comes to getting us to give up – and that isn’t useful.

So, let’s tackle some less-than-useful thinking around what anxiety is…

Theory 1

Anxiety is Genetic

There are some people, doctors included, who are fond of the notion that anxiety is a genetic disorder or problem. I’m not 100% certain why they have come to this conclusion, but it’s wrong.

This isn’t to say that certain tendencies that can be influenced by genetics don’t potentially increase the possibility that we may wrestle with anxiety, under some conditions. It has been argued in some theories of anxiety that anxiety fighters have two specific traits – we’re smart and we’re a little more sensitive to stimuli that perhaps other people.

(Yeah, I said smart. As in intelligent. So far, in my experience, I have no evidence that contradicts this notion. I’ve never met a dumb anxiety fighter. In fact the opposite seems to be true – we are the ones who OVERTHINK things.)

Certainly both of those traits are influenced by genetics! But neither of these issues decides whether or not we’ll be anxious thinkers. No, it’s learned thinking that brings us to a place of chronic/ongoing anxiety.

Let me say that again: anxiety is a thinking problem. We are not BORN with our thinking tendencies. We learn them as we go along. We have the hardware – our brains. We have to acquire the software – our thinking patterns/assumptions/beliefs.

Theory 2

I drive this discussion so hard because some of us find it very easy to say “oh, well, I’m just an anxious person”, as if anxiety was a personality trait that we are given at birth. Not so. Also not useful. It’s too easy to default to giving up if you think you’re naturally doomed to anxiety.

Anxiety is mainly Biochemical – i.e, it’s a brain disorder

Another theory of anxiety is that there is something fundamentally wrong with one or more of our neurotransmitters, with the usual suspect being Serotonin. Certainly Serotonin is impacted by a number of variables, and there is definitely evidence that says that reduced Serotonin levels are found in people who are dealing with chronic anxiety.

But this only begs the question: which comes first – reduced Serotonin levels or anxious thinking? I am no neurologist. But I can say with a lot of confidence that there is good evidence that chronic anxious thinking (and the resulting Flight or Fight reactions in our bodies and brains) can impact Serotonin levels – specifically, slowly reducing them over time, leaving us with lowered thresholds to stimuli – and thus more prone to Flight or Fight firing up.

This means that if we begin to tackle that anxious thinking, reducing the tendencies to generate “what if” thoughts and the resulting fright responses, we can take Serotonin levels in the opposite direction. Once anxious, always anxious (i.e., we can manage anxiety, but we can never be free of chronic anxiety) simply isn’t true.

Theory 3

I’m not saying it doesn’t FEEL that way. Part of this belief, I suspect, stems from how little we understand our anxious thinking – how dense and quick it can be in the background of our thinking. We’ve been fighting it for years and decades, we’ve tried different things – desensitization, medications, meditation, etc. – but because we didn’t understand this fundamental truth of anxiety – that it is based in anxious thinking – nothing changed for us.

Don’t take my word for ANY of this, btw. Everything I advocate in this work of breaking the hold of anxious thinking is MEANT to be road-tested.

Medication is the only real/workable way to Manage Anxiety

This is a whole conversation by itself, this discussion of the role of meds in dealing with anxiety (see my blog post HERE for some more on this subject.) There’s no question that meds can be, used correctly, a tool that can assist us in this fight.

Meds can, for some people, ease the impact of Flight or Fight reactions to our anxious thinking. Flight or Fight is so scary for the vast majority of us, and in easing that roar of sensations and feelings we can get some better clarity in our thinking.

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Unfortunately many of us stop there. And it makes perfect sense. We think “hey, I feel better, why should I keep wrestling with this crap? I just want my life back anyway.” So we don’t do the hard and messy work of cleaning up our thinking –

Which leaves us managing our anxiety with medication. Of course we’re not really managing anything – we’re just keeping the worst of the symptoms at bay. That’s legal – but it isn’t taking us out of chronic anxious thinking.

It isn’t a long journey from this behavior to “I’ve GOT to have meds to manage my anxiety.” Worse, too many people, not understanding the real source of anxiety in the first place, stop at whatever relief they get from their meds – and then live in terror of the day when their meds don’t work, or they are cut off from those meds. Ugh.

Medications CAN’T end anxiety for us. They can give us breathing space. They can help us think a little more clearly to do the work of sorting out and ending chronic anxious thinking. But they can’t, by themselves, change that thinking.

It’s all in our Heads…

No, that doesn’t mean we’re making up anxiety because we’re crazy, lazy or just sad little people. Anxiety is a thinking disorder. And that’s actually a pretty great way to put it – thinking disorder. Because our thinking is out of order when it comes to how we’re framing our world and how we roll in that world.

We’re not “anxious people.” This isn’t a character trait – or flaw. We’re not neurologically damaged, thank you very much. Yeah, neuro-transmitters are impacted by chronic anxious thinking – and we are still free to clean up that thinking. And while it would be great if there really was a pill to take that would make anxious thinking stop, at the moment no such creature exists.

Anxiety is learned. And as I’ve written here before, anything we can learn, we can unlearn – and more importantly, learn differently.

Keep It Simple sign with a beach on background

Although it is nowhere near Halloween I thought I’d tell you a scary story today. Well, not really scary, but a wanna-be scary story. I had an old ghost come visit me last night. He drops by every now and then, and every time he shows up I find myself irritated and grateful, all at the same time. I’ve known him since the middle of the 8th grade, and he used to scare the crap out of me. Now the best he can do is wake me up (sometimes), and occasionally startle me for a few moments.

The ghost I’m talking about is the memory of my days battling anxiety. It is probably more accurate to say it is a small handful of ghosts – a group of ghosts, if you will – that rise from memory when I’m tired, or not feeling well, or just out of sorts with the day and with my life at that moment.

At the heart of those ghosts of anxiety is old thinking, thinking that used to dominate my life and mess with my health and happiness. And as I said, those ghosts can both piss me off and make me glad they came by. Why make me glad?

Ghost Conversations

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We think a LOT of thoughts as we make our way through our day. We’re not conscious of a significant number of them, which seems weird, but is true. Some of those thoughts are no big deal – hey, it’s raining, I wonder what that dog is looking at, did I put the milk in the fridge? Nothing earth-shaking. Some thoughts make us laugh – memories of a conversation, reactions to a TV show, thinking about the Halloween costume you want to wear this year.

Some thoughts bring stronger reactions – remembering an argument with a co-worker, thinking on a friendship that took damage from both sides and that you miss, regret for a missed opportunity. And some of THOSE kinds of thoughts have the potential to make us anxious if they get us worrying about what might happen to us at some point in the future.

I’ve said a number of times in this blog that we don’t have to be conscious of our thinking for our thinking to impact us. And that’s exactly what happens in the dead of the night when I wake up and find my old ghost “friends” visiting me.

The ghosts have a pretty repetitive routine when they come to visit. They like to start with a general sense of unease and annoyance. I spent so many years being afraid to wake up in the middle of the night (for fear that I would feel anxious and not be able to go back to sleep) that just them dropping by is enough to, even now, start that first few thoughts of worry. What if I can’t go back to sleep? What if this goes on for a couple of nights in a row?

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99% of the time these days, I can shut that thinking down pretty quickly. (I’ll describe how a little later on in this post.) But some nights (maybe 4-5 in the last 10 years) the ghosts don’t give up so easily…

Memories of Fear

Because some nights the ghosts get a little more traction in my thinking. Maybe it’s a winter night (when I was most anxious, back in the day – hated the dark and the cold combined.) Maybe it’s after a long day and I’m a little stressed over a presentation or work the next day.

Whatever the reason my future worries get a little stronger. What if anxiety gets ahold of my life again? What if I can’t manage the physical reactions to Flight or Fight the way I have been, and I’m constantly twitching in response to those reactions (in my case, dizziness and numbness in my hands and fingers, and sometimes nausea in some form – hated that too, back in the day.)

Because I remember how it used to be, even though my last panic attack was in the summer of 1995, and my last real struggle of any duration with the fear of that stuff returning was the winter of 2001 – no panic, no chronic worry, just some sleepless nights and some tedious Flight or Fight harassment. When it is 3 in the morning the ghosts start that nonsense with me, and at 3 in the morning I’m sometimes vulnerable to their whispers…

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Why? Because in remembering how it used to be, at 3 in the morning, my shields are down, my brain isn’t working very well at that hour, and the old reflexes (trained by years, decades of anxiety) try to fire up once again.

And what tries to get lodged in my thinking (aided by the whispers of those ghostly memories) is that this won’t stop. The numbness, the sadness, the dizziness, the worry, will somehow go on forever. It won’t ever stop, my life will be miserable, won’t that be terrible…

You know the litany, don’t you?

In case you’re worried this ghost story has a scary ending, don’t worry – it doesn’t. I know how to get rid of ghosts.

Begone Old Ghosts!

Isn’t it interesting in all the ghost stories how ghosts are afraid of light? Something that is supposed to be so scary at 3 in the morning can be threatened by the coming of morning? It is the same with our fearful thinking and our fearful reactions to the Flight or Fight responses to that thinking. Those ghosts can be banished by the light of clear, useful thinking…

Fear only comes in the night when I start to think that something awful or terrible will happen to me. Anxiety starts to gain ground in my thinking when I start projecting this anxious moment into the future, imagining it going on and on, never getting better, always being like it feels right now.

Except of course it never did that – even back in the difficult, exhausting days of my chronic anxiety and panic attacks. Nothing lasts forever, and that’s good news in this conversation. Let me say it again: NOTHING lasts forever – including anxiety, fear and worry.

Ghost 5

It gets better: ALL that can sustain even recurring anxiety is our feeding our anxious thinking, constantly moving into the future, worrying about what could be, how bad things could turn out. If we are steadily, patiently working to get out of crisis thinking, if we practice refusing to live in the future (and it takes practice, practice and time) then it is impossible to sustain anxiety.

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind in this conversation about anxiety. The first is that we NEED to capacity to be anxious. That’s part of that Flight or Fight Mechanism that keeps us safe in the presence of actual, real danger. So the potential for regular, healthy anxiety is a tool that we actually want in our toolbelts.

In other words yes, anxiety is actually good for us – in the proper context. And, really, it isn’t anxiety in this case – it’s simple fear in the presence of real danger, along with the capacity to DEAL with that danger to the best of our ability when we’re confronted with real, physical, right-now danger.

The second thing to keep in mind is that sometimes anxiety (fear of the future) can trigger good, thoughtful, useful action in the face of things seeming overwhelming or too much in the moment we’re anxious. Yeah – sometimes anxiety is a stimulus to action, useful, needed action.

In a sense anxiety can be a guardian, a watcher on the walls, reminding us that we might need to do some preparing, or some thinking, or take some action in the near future. Both of these contexts are anxiety doing the job is supposed to do.

What WE, us chronic anxiety fighters, fight or have fought, is anxiety RULING our lives – because our what if thinking is ruling our lives. Not so useful. The ghosts of what if rattling chains and moaning at us about the terrible future are just that – ghosts, haunting thoughts. And ghosts are not very fond of the light. We are no more a prisoner of them than we are of any insubstantial thing – if we develop the skills of turning crisis in our thinking back into problems. Begone, old ghosts…

emotions 3

We don’t have to fear the Night

Or, really, any other time. The heart and soul of anxiety is fearful thinking about the future, thinking that’s been habituated and put on a loop in our brains. However scared we feel, however hard it seems, we are always able to start building and strengthening skills to take control of that thinking and, over time, diminish and finally shut it down.

And that’s when we start smiling at the ghosts – when we stop being afraid of them, and instead start shaking our heads at their chains and moaning.

I love good story-telling. I’m a big TV and film watcher (a little picky, but the stuff I love, I love.) Yes, I watch Game of Thrones, and Teen Wolf, and Star Trek, and the Night Shift. I have been a fan in the past of Law and Order, and ER, and Friends. The movies I treasure are too numerous to mention…

But as much as I love a good story I’m always reminded that even the best of stories (with the possible exception of Game of Thrones, which almost goes too far in the opposite direction) leaves out a lot of the slow, frustrating, tedious times that also make up any real story.

You know what I mean. A young couple meets, falls in love, goes through some adventures, maybe doubts their relationship once or twice, then it’s the final scene, love triumphs and the credits roll. Ta da!

Not usually how it works in real life. Makes for good, speedy story-telling, but it doesn’t do justice to how a developmental process actually rolls. That young couple will have some fights, some miscommunications, some friends interfering in their new-found relationship. They will have financial challenges, be pulled in different directions, have to reconcile things they don’t like about each other, etc.

The same is true of overcoming anxiety. We read the books, we go to the therapist, we learn some techniques – and then a lot of us expect that we’ll sail a clear path to freedom. (Or, at least, we hope like hell that there will be a relatively painless path to freedom.)

Thank you for playing, but no – that isn’t how this goes. NO question there will be growth, and victories, better days, clearer thinking, better understanding. Fear will diminish and there will be progress.

Setback 4

But there will also be setbacks. There will be times we stall out and can’t seem to make any headway. We will seem to reach plateaus and only see frustrating sameness on the near horizon.

That’s normal. That’s part of this getting smarter/wiser/more skillful process. Let’s talk about it –

Setbacks

Let’s first of all question this word setback. It sounds like something from sports, although it’s actually a word from architecture (of all things.) The primary common definition however is what most of us think it means – “a problem that makes progress more difficult or success less likely.”

That is certainly what it can feel like when things suddenly seem like we haven’t learned anything! We think we’re making progress and then we wake up one morning and it is like we haven’t learned a damn thing. Skills seem absent, motivation seems in the toilet, we’re scared and confused and it FEELS like we’ve lost something.

We haven’t lost anything. Let me repeat that: we haven’t lost a dang thing. Learning is learning. Skills are skills. Sure, if we sat on our hands for years and didn’t do anything we might see skills atrophy, get rusty from disuse. But just ask anybody who ever learned to ride a bike and then didn’t ride a bike for a long time if they regained their bike-riding skills when they got back up on a bike –

Because they did. Same thing for the skills needed to deal with anxiety. Sure, it isn’t fun. And I’m going to explain in a minute what setbacks actually are. But it isn’t about losing anything.

Setback 2

So, what ARE setbacks?

Ladies and Gentlemen, please fasten your Seat Belts

ANYONE who is fighting their way up and out of anxiety runs into several standard “bumps” in the road. I’ve only realized recently that not much has been written about these bumps (at least not that I’ve found) so it’s time to shed some light on the subject.

One thing that will bring on a setback is several of our fears coming at us at once. We’ve been dealing with our fears, we’re getting some skill at unpacking, we’re starting to feel the burn of exercise well-done, and then bam! We get hit by what feels like all of our fears at once.

In other words we get overwhelmed. We were OK with one fear, or maybe two, but here’s eleven – let’s see how you do now! 🙂 Of course we’re going to try, reflexively, to return to old habits of anxiety management. And there’s the rub – we’re just defaulting to old ways of anxiety coping.

Really listen to that last piece: we are reverting to old habits of anxiety management in the presence of temporary overwhelm.

We’re not losing what we’ve learned. We’re not “backsliding.” We’re not stupid, we’re not failing, we’re not fragile creatures made of spun glass – we’re just in a learning curve, just building some skills, and we’re not where we’d like to be just yet. Perhaps most importantly IT ISN’T A CRISIS. It’s just anxiety banging on our doors again.

What else can trigger a “setback”? In my experience physical debilitation – i.e., getting sick, dealing with a physical injury, either one – can put us off our game. We forget that our minds and our bodies are tied together – and weakness in one can bring challenges in the other, either direction. So we’re not at our best when we’re sick or injured – and it will be easier to again go back to old habits.

Setback 1

This can also be set up by simply a period of sustained lack of decent sleep. Most people here in the 21st century have a very skewed view of sleep and our bodies’ needs. We act as if we were machines that can be driven hard, day after day, and not need to take ourselves off the highway for a rest stop. Anxiety can also impact our sleep quality. In any event we NEED to gear back and get quality rest, to the extent we can.

And if we don’t we can lose track of our developing skills. When I say lose track I don’t mean lose completely. I simply mean that we are still solidifying our skills, and with the drains of illness, injury or lack of sleep, at this point in the learning curve, we get distracted and default, again, to old anxiety habits of thought and reaction.

The third way I’ve noticed that we get a little sideways in our skill-building is falling back into the habit of self-abuse and self-criticism – self-hating behaviors. (See the posts that start HERE around a detailed discussion of the impact of learned self-hatred on our anxious thinking and what to do about it.)

We, the solid majority of us, learned that the way to make progress or measure up was to hammer on ourselves as a form of self-motivation. I don’t know that it ever works well for most of us, but it sure as hell doesn’t do much for sustained motivation, and it’s terrible when it comes to self-confidence, self-encouragement and self-care.

The worst part is most of us have no idea we’ve defaulted back to that crappy, self-abusive recrimination that we learned to do so well in an earlier time in our lives. Before we know it we’re yelling at ourselves, cursing our weakness, treating ourselves like wayward children. And none of that does much for our skill-building at converting anxious thinking to problem thinking.

Setback 6

This is again, simply, time to practice getting our thinking clear – in this case, recognizing and shutting down the self-critical voice that ISN’T helping, getting our thinking clean and getting back to framing problems as problems, not failures or character flaws.

Need to be focused on changing thinking – but succumb to the temptation to trying, futilely, to controlling Flight or Fight by force of will.

Stalls/Plateaus

Where I grew up (Las Vegas) there are these interesting features in the desert landscape called mesas. They are these flat-topped little hills or mountains. I don’t understand all the geology behind them, but they are pretty great if you like to hike. You laboring up this steep hillside and then suddenly you’re on this flat, elevated place where you can see for miles around. And you can REST from the climb too.

Mesas are not a bad metaphor for what happens to us sometimes in our journey up and out of anxiety. There’s no question that we want to climb and be DONE with this work. It can get so urgent for us that ANY delay in our progress MUST mean we are doing something wrong, we’re screwing up, oh my gosh what am I going to do, etc.

But every ascent, every journey, is going to have slow times and plateaus. Every hiker knows that you can’t ALWAYS be heading uphill, ALWAYS making the steep ascent. Sometimes you have to walk level ground, or even go downhill a little ways, to continue the climb.

Same thing applies to any skill acquisition we’re doing. Skills need time to settle into our brains and bodies. Skills are, in some respects, collections of habits, and habits take time to acquire/get fixed in our behavior. And, as I’ve just discussed, old habits sometimes try to assert themselves. There’s practice time in dealing with securing new skills over old skills.

There’s also learning capacity too. Sometimes we just need some time given all we’re learning AND what’s happening in the rest of our lives.

Setback 7

Sure, we’d like things to move faster. No question. But some processes can’t be rushed. Skill-building can be focused on and helped along, but for the most part it will take time, along with all that effort, to get where we want to go.

Setbacks, Stalls and Plateaus – part of the Work

Maybe the most important thing to take away from this blog post is that there is nothing to be afraid of when we find ourselves not making the forward progress we’re so impatient for every minute of the day. This, too, is not a crisis. It’s just part of the learning curve.

And these periods of less-than-rapid growth ARE helping us grow. You might even say these times are essential to help us really get this work in our bones.

There are a LOT of people offering counsel and advice on how to overcome anxiety these days. Hardly a surprise – there are a LOT of people dealing with anxiety in the world.

Just look at the ads on TV for anti-depression and anti-anxiety medications! Holy crap! Then cruise through Facebook or on the web in general for all the groups that people can join to talk about anxiety and depression.

When you get enough of that wander into your local bookstore. Dozens of books on this anxiety stuff there. When you get done with that go on Amazon and see how many MORE books there are for you to read and study.

Of course there are scads of therapists (such a good idea in our fight to break anxiety’s hold.) And your doctor stands ready to prescribe some of those medications I mentioned above. Books, doctors, medications, therapists, groups – there is a lot in the anti-anxiety arsenal these days – more than any other time in human history.

The quality of that advice and help varies of course, and there are some goofy/less-than-useful notions about anxiety’s origins and permanence that can get in the way, but in general we have some good stuff floating around. One thing, however, sometimes goes missing in our thinking about how to get free of chronic anxiety and depression.

Hard Work 3

We have to do the work. We have to wade into our fears (more specifically our fearful thinking) and pin them down. We have to identify the thinking that is scaring us, see it for what it is – crisis thinking about something that is not an immediate crisis – and start wrenching it out of crisis status in our thinking.

We get to do all that while we deal with the firestorm of Flight or Fight activating as our fears get tackled. UGH. It’s a kind of one-two punch – not only do we have to get down and dirty with our fears, we have to deal with our reactions to our fears.

This is work any of us can do. I say that over and over again in this blog. And while the information, advice, counsel and support is vitally important, at the end of the day we have to get down to the work. Today’s post is about getting as clear as possible on what is required of us to make this work WORK.

Step 1: Wade in

Anxiety is a crafty son-of-a-gun. It doesn’t usually care if you’re talking about doing something about your fears – as long as it just STAYS talk. Yak all you like, anxiety says, as long as you don’t actually start doing anything serious about your fears.

That’s a metaphor, of course. Our anxiety isn’t a living creature inside of us. 🙂 A more accurate description is that we’ve walled our fears away, and we can hear the growling and howling of our fears over that wall – and it scares us.

Hard Work 1

It FEELS safer to leave those fears locked up behind that wall in our minds. The howling and growling never really go away, of course, but if we make enough noise, stay busy enough, we come to believe that we can live with the racket.

In fact we do what we can to run away from our fears. It isn’t because we are weak or chicken – it’s because our fears seem so huge, so impossible to deal with, that it just makes sense to run as far as we can from them.

This works – often for a long time. It works in the sense that we succeed in mostly keeping our fears out of our daily lives – or at least we don’t see significant impact from our fears. If we find a medication that helps shut down Flight or Fight – as most of the anti-anxiety drugs do – then it’s even easier to keep away from our fearful thoughts, stay away from that wall and the howling.

But for most of us, sooner or later, we find our fears getting bigger and our capacity to run shrinking. It’s (again with a metaphor) almost like those fears are breeding there, behind the wall – making more and more things for us to fear.

We often try to keep running. It’s worked before, right? We might increase our meds – and that can work for a while too. We get busier. We do whatever we can to keep our fears at arm’s length (preferably further.) But if you’re reading this blog it’s pretty likely that your capacity for running or avoiding has reached a limit.

Here’s the weird news: that’s good. It doesn’t feel good – it feels terrible – but it is still good news. It means it is time to wade in, bust a hole in that wall between you and your fears. It comes down to either dealing decisively with our fearful thinking or continuing to live with what has become, over time, chronic anxiety.

Step 1: wading in. That’s where it all begins. It may be the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And it is the absolutely vital step in the right direction. What does wading look like? It is turning to identify and unpack our fearful thinking, seeing it for what it is, and keeping at that unpacking until our fears become what they really are – problems.

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes - moving concept

Man covered by lots of cardboard boxes – moving concept

Step 2: Unpack our Fears

Here’s the core of the work. We have to identify how we’re scaring ourselves in our thinking. We have to get specific and we have to muck around in here long enough to get those specifics.

There’s no way around this – it’s scary. It’s scary for two reasons. The first is that we are treating these fears as crises. We think they are REALLY DANGEROUS, death-risky, literally, and it rocks our world to look at our fears face-on. The second reason is that we fire up Flight or Fight in our bodies when we confront these fears (hell, when we even seriously consider confronting these fears we can do that.)

I’ll get to Flight or Fight in a minute. But step 2 is as much as anything about sitting with our fears while recognizing that, however we feel and whatever we’re worried about, it’s all based in “what if” fears about what this COULD mean.

Let’s repeat that: our fearful thinking is all about what COULD happen. It might be 10 minutes from now in our thinking, or it might be next year, but it’s all about being afraid of the future. Flight or Fight reactions can muddy the water for us – it FEELS like it is about right now, this second – but being anxious by definition means we are afraid of something that COULD happen at some point in the future.

That’s it. That’s the heart of it. I’m NOT saying it’s easy! That’s the principal reason I’m writing this post today. It’s scary and it’s hard.

It’s also the way we start to get free of our fears. As long as they stay in the shadows, behind the walls of our Comfort Zone, there isn’t much we can about them – and they will continue to scare us.

Part of what makes this so hard to start is that running WORKED – probably for a long time, longer than we are conscious of in our daily lives. We’ve gotten used to running as a way to deal with fear. But our fears have a way, sooner or later, of catching up with us.

Habit 14

So let me encourage you to expect to be tempted to run – and to actually run – even if you want to stay and get your fears sorted out. It’s natural and normal.

The scariness of facing our fears (and what they seem to say about our future) often leads people to start this work again and again, only to back away. That can go on for years. That’s legal too. Sure, you’re not getting anyplace – but you’re also not a freak for not leaning in and finishing this in one titanic fight. 🙂

Lots of other people pump up their meds and manage their fears a while longer that way. NO shame in that. It’s easier, frankly. Doesn’t mean we’re actually dealing with and overcoming our fears, but we’re not bad people for taking this route!

To turn and deal with anxiety is to, for a while, actively disrupt and make something of a mess in our worlds. That can range from some mild disruption of schedules and activities to having to temporarily pulling back from most our lives to deal with these fears. That’s tedious, messy and brings its own fears of failure.

But this is the route that will get us actually over our fears. There are posts HERE, HERE and HERE that describe the basics of unpacking. The work isn’t complicated – just scary. (Sure, Erik, JUST scary. Easy for you to say! Don’t think I don’t remember how scared I was when I started this work, and for the first months after that start.)

There’s another reason this freaks us out – we have to

3) Contend with Flight or Fight yelling at us

The nano-second we get serious about facing down our fears Flight or Fight jumps up and starts getting in our face. We’ve been telling it for most of our lives that this or that fear is too terrible to examine, and now suddenly we’re wading in.

Flight or Fight is a big piece of why facing our fears is scary. It’s bad enough that our fearful thinking has us up in the hypothetical future contemplating disaster – Flight or Fight then begins screaming at us, making our bodies and emotions seemingly freak out. It is of course just doing its job – trying to get us to safety – but we’re not running from actual, right-now danger – so it isn’t helping much. Or at all.

Hard Work 6

We come to link all kinds of theories to that freaking out. We are having a heart attack. We are going crazy. This feels awful. We’re going to die from these sensations and feelings. We must be defective or damaged or just weird. We build a whole second layer of fears around these sensations and feelings being generated by our frightened thinking.

So wading in means two things: facing down our scary thinking AND facing down our reactions to our reactions (to Flight or Fight.) It isn’t easy. It can be very challenging some days, and especially at the start of this work. We’re having to identify our fears and sort them out while riding this wave of feelings and sensations.

It’s hard to stay clear on the work when we get in this place. It’s one reason to do it in pieces, small bites, at the start, or anytime we’re getting overwhelmed. It’s like learning any skill, only this skill (more accurately, set of skills) is also SCARY.

Our thinking tends to degrade to some degree when we’re in this place. Flight or Fight isn’t big on lucid thinking – it’s only got one mission, get everyone to the life boats – and so it will take practice and patience to stay in our skins when we’re doing this work.

But that’s also part of what gets us smarter and stronger in dealing with our fears. When we can spend even a little time in that place, staring our fears in the eye and keeping Flight or Fight semi-clear in our thinking, we begin to see how much we’ve been running from thoughts, rather than actual danger.

BOTH skills are necessary – unpacking our fearful thinking back to problem thinking AND learning to see Flight or Fight for what it is.

Hard Work 4

Let me be clear: this is hard work. Not impossible, not dangerous – but hard. A lifetime of training to RUN AWAY in one form or another is a hard habit to break when we’re as anxious and keyed up as we get when we wade into this work – or even seriously think about it.

What gets in the way?

Well, one thing that makes this work hard and frustrating is that it is slow going, at least some of the time. We start to identify and unpack fears, we start to get our arms around the smoke screen of reactions that is Flight or Fight – and then we seem to lose it all. It seems to all go right out the window.

Call those setbacks, or bumps in the road, or whatever you like, they are part of the learning curve. (More about those in my next blog post.) They are part of ANY learning curve, whether it’s a sport, a dance move, a course at school or learning to cook. They are part of us learning skills and mastering those skills.

The only difference is… we make those bumps into a crisis. 🙂 Oops. Oh well – we’re fighting anxiety, nothing very surprising there. We’ll learn from these times too. As I’ve argued in other places these are essential, actually, in our deeply learning our skills.

It isn’t particularly speedy work either. It takes TIME, and practice, and steady effort. None of us like that fact either – we’re SICK to death of anxiety and we want it gone NOW. Been there, did that. Doesn’t change that it takes the time it takes.

Something else that trips some of us up is how untroubled and carefree the rest of the world seems – at least from our viewpoint. It sucks that we’re fighting so hard and every else seems to be at recess – at least mentally and emotionally.

Hard Work 2

Of course we don’t know where they are. We don’t know their struggles. And it doesn’t matter anyway! We are where WE are. We have the work we have in front of us. As I’ve said other places it’s perfectly OK to whine, bitch, kvetch, have a tantrum – do what works for you. But then get back to the work.

One Foot in front of the Other…

There are lots of famous quotes about how nothing of worth is free. I don’t know about that. If I won the lottery I’m pretty sure I’d be holding something of worth, at least financially. 🙂 But learning a skill, or set of skills (in this case, learning to think clearly and quickly and well about what’s a problem, what’s actually a crisis, how to manage Flight or Fight and how to dismantle the crap of anxious thinking) takes time and practice.

And the payoff is enormous. Take it from a guy who had all but shut out the world, living in an OK double-wide trailer in the crappy part of town, terrified to go outside, convinced he would never, ever have the life he wanted, enduring constant panic attacks and certain it would never get better.

I was wrong. These are skills I learned – and so can you. So take up the help, learn the information, get the therapist you need, retain that coach, rally your support in family and friends and folks online, join the group, whatever you need to make this work. And then lean in. Want some help from a veteran? Hit me here – happy to assist.

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